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Abortions resume in Wisconsin after 15 months of legal uncertainty

Anti-abortion demonstrators gather outside Planned Parenthood's Water Street Health Center in Milwaukee on Monday, Sept. 2023. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin began offering abortions at the clinic that day after not doing so for more than a year.<em> </em>
Margaret Faust/ WPR
Anti-abortion demonstrators gather outside Planned Parenthood's Water Street Health Center in Milwaukee on Monday, Sept. 2023. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin began offering abortions at the clinic that day after not doing so for more than a year.

After more than a year, Planned Parenthood is once again providing abortions in Wisconsin.

Starting Monday, the group began offering abortion appointments at two locations — the Water Street Health Center in Milwaukee and the Madison East Health Center.

The decision follows a nearly 15-month period during which virtually no legal abortions were available in Wisconsin.

Providers across Wisconsin stopped offering the procedure in June of 2022, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. That's largely because of a long-dormant state law, which was widely interpreted as banning abortions unless they're done to save a pregnant person's life.

But in an ongoing court case, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Diane Schlipper ruled that the 19th century law actually bans feticide — when someone attacks a pregnant person and destroys the fetus — rather than abortions performed with a patient's consent.

Planned Parenthood cites this as a basis to return to performing abortions.

"In consultation with attorneys, physicians, partners and stakeholders, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin is confident in our decision to resume abortion care in Wisconsin," Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin CEO Tanya Atkinson said in a video announcement last week.

In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday, Atkinson said people began requesting abortion appointments immediately after Planned Parenthood announced the change.

"All of our appointment slots were full within 24 hours," Atkinson said. "So it's clear that the need is great."

Meanwhile, at Planned Parenthood's Water Street clinic in Milwaukee, nearly 50 anti-abortion protestors had gathered by Monday morning to pray and sing. Among them was Sarah Storms, who cited her Christian faith.

"We view innocent pre-born children as our neighbor, and we have a duty to stand up and speak on their behalf as they're being led away to death," Storms said. "We have a special inspiration today because abortion laws against abortion in our state are being disregarded and not enforced by the authorities that be."

The ruling in Dane County this summer was the latest twist in an ongoing dispute over the legality of abortions under Wisconsin's 1849 law.

Wisconsin's Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul sued days after Roe's overturn in an attempt to block prosecutions of abortions under the law. This summer, Dane County's Schlipper allowed the case to proceed when she dismissed a motion from Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanksi, which asked for Kaul's lawsuit to be thrown out.

In her July ruling, Judge Schlipper cited a 1994 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision.

"According to State v. Black, ... this pre-Roe statute says nothing about abortion—there is no such thing as an '1849 Abortion Ban' in Wisconsin," Schlipper wrote. "A physician who performs a consensual medical abortion commits a crime only 'after the fetus or unborn child reaches viability."'

The Dane County case is ongoing and is likely to be appealed to Wisconsin's Supreme Court, where liberals now hold a 4-3 majority.

Newly-elected state supreme court Justice Janet Protasiewicz was outspoken about her support for abortion rights during her 2023 campaign, prompting criticism from Republicans who accused her of pre-judging potential cases.

Last week, Wisconsin's state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, blasted the decision of Planned Parenthood to resume abortions while Kaul's lawsuit is still pending.

"We're still working our way through the legislative and the process inside the courts," Vos told reporters. "So it's very presumptive, and it's one of the things that worries me about the independence of our judiciary."

Prior to Roe's overturn, elective abortions were available in only three cities in Wisconsin — Madison, Milwaukee and Sheboygan.

The Madison and Milwaukee Planned Parenthood clinics that are resuming abortions are both located in counties where Democratic district attorneys have pledged not to prosecute abortion providers under the 1849 law. But in Sheboygan County, Urmanski, a Republican, has said he would enforce the law.

Planned Parenthood is looking into resuming abortion services at its Sheboygan clinic, Atkinson said Friday.

"We continue to work on logistics in order to in order to do that," Atkinson said. "We want to make sure that we are able to offer a meaningful schedule for folks who need access."

Cynthia Lin is board president of the Women's Medical Fund, a Wisconsin nonprofit that provides financial assistance to people seeking abortions. She applauded Planned Parenthood's decision to resume abortions in Wisconsin, and said the Fund will continue working with people seeking abortions, whether they're traveling within Wisconsin or outside its borders.

"We know that people will continue needing abortions, and will continue getting them," Lin said. "Some will also continue traveling out-of-state as they did, because of relatively more cumbersome restrictions in Wisconsin compared to some of our neighboring states."

Copyright 2023 Wisconsin Public Radio

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Sarah Lehr
Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.
Margaret Faust